It was you: a letter of trail origins

Kiwi running legend, Mal Law, is about to undertake the most audacious feat of his life… the High Five-0 Challenge: fifty marathons, fifty mountains, fifty days. Before that it was the 7-in-7 and the Coastal Path Challenges with a bunch of other cause-related runs packed in between. On the eve of his biggest challenge to date – and biggest fundraising effort with almost $300K raised for Mental Health Foundation of NZ (MHF) – we thought we’d re-run a very personal piece he wrote for the magazine a while back, exploring the motivations that drive his obsession with trail running which can be traced back to his parents. Here, Mal writes a letter to his Dad in a conversation that sheds some light on the man and the passion. Check his mission out in real time at We wish Mal the best on the coming days, which will be huge, tough, but full of inspiration. 

Alfred Edward (Ted) and Esme Law 1969Dear Dad,

I should have written this letter to you long ago, but somehow I never got around to it. I so wish I had, because then you might actually have got to read it.

The doctors said it was pneumonia and maybe that’s what it was in medical terms. But in human terms we know it was a broken heart. Just a week earlier we had said goodbye to mum. Your job on this mortal coil was done. You had loved her for more than 60 years and cared for her so touchingly in her final months. There was nothing left for you to hang around for and so at the same time as being devastated by losing you we were pleased that you didn’t have to struggle on in a world devoid of purpose and meaning.

You were a man of your generation. You kept your emotions in check and didn’t outwardly express your love, yet I was never in any doubt about just how much you did love me. This rubbed off on me and until close to the end I hadn’t mustered the courage to say what should be the simplest thing to say to your own father – “I love you dad”. I’m so glad that I eventually did but I also wish I’d also told you how grateful I was to you for shaping the person I have become. That’s what this letter is about.

For today, Dad, I am a happy, fulfilled person who has found a passion that both defines my life and gives it meaning – trail running. I love everything about it. The physical and mental challenges that it provides, the amazing places that it takes me, the adventure that is inherent in every run, the massive reward I get from running for good causes, the people that I do it with and the wider community of friends and acquaintances that I feel so very much a part of. Trail runners are my tribe and I’m happy being one of them. That sounds almost trite but the sense of belonging and fulfillment that this fringe pursuit brings me is central to my concept of self worth. And without that we are nothing.

So how is it that you – a man I never ever saw running, except as a referee on a rugby field and a devilishly sly tennis player – had such a heavy influence on what I am today?Cap to come_IMG_0229

Perhaps the most obvious way that you rubbed off on me was through your own love of mountains and wild places. Some of my earliest, strongest and most poignant memories from my childhood are of rummaging around in cupboards at home amongst your hiking boots; ferreting in your steel-framed rucksack looking for leftover boiled sweets; the musty aroma of your anorak and waterproofs. I can almost smell the dubbin and the leather as I write this; the peaty smells that emanated from those clothes even months after your last trip to your beloved Scottish mountains.

It’s all so vivid and feels so connected with, responsible for, what I have become. Which makes it hard to believe that the few times you succeeded in getting me on to a mountain you did so with me kicking, screaming and moping, bribed by the promise of a measly square of fruit and nut chocolate if I made the summit.

Given my obstreperous attitude and seeming indifference to thick Scottish cloud, you’d have been surprised if you’d ever caught me doing something that I did regularly – sneaking glances at your mountain walking photo albums. But Dad, even without realizing it at the time, I think I always loved those boring black and white pictures of misty ridges, stark corries and dark rock walls. They left in indelible impression on me and with hindsight it was inevitable that I would one day be drawn back to such places, freely and of my own will, to experience the sheer unmitigated joy of pitting myself against gravity and bagging peaks. Thank you for planting that seed and sorry I wasn’t better company at the time. Mal Tama Lakes 1

I also recall you telling me stories about your adventures. Catching the night train from your RAF base in the south of England hundreds of miles north to disembark on the bleak expanse of Rannoch Moor so you could bag a few peaks before catching the train back the next day. Taking the mail boat from Mallaig into the wilds of Knoydart to knock off the most remote peaks in the British Isles. Hearing of your fear on scaling the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the Cuilin Range on the Isle of Skye. Each story seeped into me, crystallising into an unquenchable thirst for adventure that would surface many years later.

But it was more than just your passion for wild places that has shaped who I am today. You had a personal quest and after roaming all over the Highlands for some 30+ years you became one of the first people ever to summit all 650 or so 3,000ft-high Scottish ‘Tops’. I never told you at the time but I was so proud of you and I loved the look of total incomprehension in the eyes of friends when I attempted to explain to them what you had achieved. I’m sure this is one reason why I am such a goal-oriented person, and why I love attempting things that are beyond the comprehension of many.

So through you I discovered mountains and I discovered hiking. I started bagging the Scottish peaks myself and found adventure and solace in those high places. Then I moved to New Zealand and my love of the outdoors was magnified by the wildness of our landscapes here. I took to multi-day tramping trips like a duck to water and this eventually led me to trail running. It may seem like a circuitous route to finding my true calling but I know I would never have arrived here at my ‘happy place’ without your quiet unassuming influence. Thanks dad.Mal Tama Lakes 2

But all this was just the start. I was trail running for many years before I really started to think of it as a defining part of who I am. Before I became obsessed. The tipping point came when I decided (ironically enough during a long solo multi-day hike) to attempt running the 7 mainland Great Walks in 7 Days. What was to become the 7in7 Challenge. This as you know was my way of belatedly dealing with the event that forty years earlier had shattered us all – the death of your other son, my brother Alan. I wanted to honour his memory and I wanted to raise money for families that were facing the same battles that we had to face when Alan was sick with leukaemia.

But I also wanted to do something that would make you proud of me. Crazy I know that at the age of 49 I was still looking for that, but there you go. As it turned out, when I told you of my plan you simply said: “You’re off your rocker, that can’t be done!” I know you were simply worried for me (or at least about my knees), but I have to tell you that did rather stoke my fire and make me even more determined to succeed. So once again you were highly influential in creating what has now become my true passion – using trail running to benefit great causes.

So much for the past. What of the future? Dad, I so wish you were still here to share in the next great adventure planned. This one is special because I’m coming ‘home’ to do it. I wanted to tell you about this when the idea first hit me but it was just days before Mum’s funeral service, you were sick, and the time seemed wrong.10658622_711102448944959_7791270423804775759_o

Do you remember that Sal and I took off to Cornwall for a couple of days, under orders from Hilary and Jacky (the Sisters That Must Be Obeyed), to have a couple of days to ourselves? Well, the first morning we were there I awoke very early. It was pitch black and freezing outside but I needed a run to clear my head and make sense of mum’s death. So I took off on the South West Coast Path along a section that I knew you and mum had walked and loved. The frigid air chilled my bones but gave me a sense of alertness that I’d lacked for days since stepping off the hastily booked flight from Auckland.

For the first hour I could only see what my head torch illuminated but gradually dawn seeped through the sky and struggled in vain to warm this stark morning landscape of huge cliffs and wild seas. I could see you and Mum walking hand in hand along the cliff path and I cried as I ran, trying to find the right words for my eulogy to Mum. This is when I knew that I wanted to run the entire 1014 km length of this fierce but beautiful trail. It just seemed so right and it became even more so when just a week or so later you too passed away.

[Mal did end up running the length of the South West Coastal Path, having teamed up with runner Tom Bland]

Yes, I know you would have appreciated the irony of this and most likely would have come up with some fitting pun to make light of the situation. You’d have tutted, shaken your head and asked “Why?” But I can’t help but feel that deep down you’d have been very proud, just as I know you were when I completed my 7in7 Challenges.  

From the Mountain

By George Sterling (1869-1926)

Let us go home with the sunset on our faces:
We that went forth at morn,
To follow on the wind’s auroral paces,
And find the desert bourn
The frontier of our hope and Heaven’s scorn.

Let us go home with the sunset on our faces:
We that have wandered far
And stood by noon in high, disastrous places,
And known what mountains are
Between those eyries and the morning star.

Let us go home with the sunset on our faces:
Although we have not found
The pathway to the inviolable spaces,
We see from holy ground
An ocean far below without a sound.


ED’S NOTE: As Mal does, we here at Trail Run Mag have a great belief in the power of being active in the outdoors – including trail running – to help heal and manage mental health issues. So we encourage anyone who can, to donate to the cause through Mal’s website or the Mental Health charity he’s raising funds for. Or, we encourage anyone experiencing mental health issues to reach out, contacting a mental health assistance organisation wherever you are, and maybe even hook up with one of the many social trail running groups out there – friendly bunches one and all, welcoming of newcomers and great to connect with.


What’s your dream trail adventure?

Small Tim Olson Chamonix FranceWe all have them: big, grand, near-impossibe, but very, very cool, dirty dreams. We lay awake at night conjuring up visions of single track sojourns in exotic places, we scan maps endlessly, looking for little dotted lines that show there’s trail for the running, and then we start planning: how can we Make It Happen?

Well, The North Face Australia may just be your single track sugar daddy.

The North Face is now accepting applications for The North Face Adventure Grant 2015, presented by AG Outdoor. The closing date for applications is 31 December 2014.

The grant is open to applicants from a wide range of areas including but not limited to rock climbing, trekking, alpine climbing, extreme endurance pursuits, skiing, snowboarding, B.A.S.E. jumping, kayaking and paragliding. AND TRAIL RUNNING! The grant is designed to assist adventurers of all levels to step up and make their adventure aspirations a reality.

Small Stephanie Howe Sierra Nevada CAThe winner of the grant will be supported with a $5000 grant from The North Face, along with $2000 worth of The North Face gear, plus a $3000 AG Outdoor grant and an exclusive story on their trip in AG Outdoor. The winner will not only be equipped with the world’s most technically innovative apparel and equipment, but will have the backing to make their dream expedition a reality.

The North Face Adventure Grant is open to residents of Australia and New Zealand only.

For more information on how to apply go here.

You can read about some of the past winners of the grant and what they got up to on the The North Face blog. You’ll note  – no trail running adventure recipients…yet. Time to change that trailtes!! Enter now!

Book Review: Extreme South

Book Review: Extreme South by James Castrission
REVIEW: Chris Ord

Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll. It’s not what you’d expect from an adventure tome that took less time to hit our shelves than it took its protagonists to complete the adventure.

But adventurer James Castrission proffers all tenants in his latest, Extreme South, detailing his and constant companion in the field, Justin Jones’, most recent achievement of becoming the first people to trek unsupported to the South Pole and back. It’s a feat that rolls way too easily off the keyboard given the immensity of the challenge and, having read the book, I’d still opine that we mere mortals can never really get a true picture or appreciation of the effort. And no amount of standing in an ice bar supping frozen daiquiris will do it (what? Isn’t that how all literary critics work? It’s called immersion, people…the equivalent of hydrated method acting).

But back to the sex. Of course it’s all musings about wet dreams and how the vast, often visually barren expanse of the Antarctic sparks intense erotic visions while cooped up in a tent with your best mate; the drugs component is a pharmacy worth of Nurofen; and the rock ‘n roll is iPod-generated and occasionally degenerates to the Australian national anthem (no offence but I’m yet to hear a good hardcore rendition yet).

In a way, that encapsulates the key challenge of keeping a reader engaged in a journey that is relentlessly monotonous: day after pus-blister-inducing day spent performing the same exacting bodily movement over and over (foot forward, schlep, foot forward, schlep, foot forward, schlep, foot forward, schlep ad nauseam) all in a world of white, and often white-out, paired with unrelenting pain and misery and suffering.

Hey: let’s spend four years of our life in the planning to make that happen! Which is exactly what the fellas did. Imagine that? And for all of those 1408 days in preparation they knew their end game was boredom and pain.

Welcome to the world of true adventure. It’s not glamorous – it’s tear- and snot-filled. It’s not a life of riches – the pair had major sponsors drop out late in the day, and they are not now on a whirlwind global tour of inspirational presentations to become rich – they are doing it to repay the bills, auditorium crowd by standing ovation auditorium crowd.

Even the fame is of no real motivation – we Adventure Types know them, sure, but Cas and Jonesy aren’t on the cover of Who magazine just yet (although the six packs – one of the few hard earned benefits of their crossing –  may get them on the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine. If Cas would just cut his hair and shave…).

No, there was nothing glamorous about the expedition, that much is clear. And beware any wanna-be adventurer that enters the fray with such celebrity-seeking thoughts. Talk to Cas and Jonesy first, for between them they are perhaps in the current day sense the most qualified to talk about real adventure, what it promises and what it actually delivers.

Which is what their trip delivers: Real Adventure.  It’s not a Boys’ Own adventure for shits and giggles, although there was plenty of the former, not so much of the latter. There was the literal version – their meticulously calorie-counted diet and stress on the body enforcing plenty of ice besmirching (not to mention leg and boot besmirching – it’s hard to defecate in howling icy winds). And there’s the relationship version where best buddies Cas and Jonesy constantly get the shits with each other.

This is perhaps one of the more insightful aspects of the book. The ideal of Cas and Jonesy as a harmonious unit bonded by friendship and mutual experience in tough times comes crumbling down as Cas delves into their shifting relationship dynamic. Here we have not just a voyeuristic titillation in the opening of a can of brotherly worms, but an indication of how the travails and constancy of true hardship can play upon and fracture once unbreakable bonds. It’s the ying-yang of adventure at close quarters accompanied by those near and dear to you as the pair explode at each other nearly as much as their bums explode over the ice and with nearly as much mess, albeit it of the emotional kind.

Cas then reflects upon such dynamics as played out in the field of adventure over the ages with particular reference to the Antarctic explorers he idolised before realising that they, too, were all too human and, like Cas and Jonesy, never felt more so than when out there on the belittling ice.

Not only was the duo comparing themselves to the past and hoping for a better outcome – one hundred years ago Norway’s Roald Amundsen beat England’s Robert Scott to the South Pole. A broken man, Scott died on the return journey – they also had to contend with the fact that there was another out on the ice at the same time, hoping to achieve the same feat. On the flight in to Union Glacier they had to stare down Norwegian Aleksandr Gamme, out to emulate his countryman, Amundsen. The race was unofficially on, whether any of the three wanted to admit it or not. And history was not on the Australians’ side.

And so, once the background of the trip is recounted replete with early dramas that pre-splinters the pair before hitting Union Glacier, we read of the breakdown of body and mind as their trip edges forward, slowly, slowly, the pace almost matching the drawn-out experience. At first chapters plod, occasionally punctured by challenges of crevasses and gear break downs and moods and spats and frustrations. As the journey the unfolds the rhythmic composition of Cas’s retelling is like large thick waves of chapters slowly thumping through, the reader willing them and the words to pick up the pace a little. Perhaps this was Cas’ intent in the writing, perhaps not – but in the context of the type of adventure we’re reading about, it works. You start to get a little frustrated. Another long day on the ice. I get it. Enough already! Give me some drama…and then, just when you can’t stand it anymore, you think you’ll put the book down for a breather, Jonesy pisses Cas off, Cas shits himself, a crevasse opens, an argument ensues and the possibility that they will even make it to the Pole, let alone the return, diminishes. And you turn another page as they take another step forward regardless.

There’s something about it that works – if a book and a writer can prompt even the slightest echo of feeling in a reader of what is transpiring in the story, then it’s a job well done. That includes frustration, anticipation, disappointment, hope…thankfully Cas doesn’t ever give you the real shits.

So, to be fair, just like there is only so many ways you can describe a scene of ice and snow, there is only so many ways to build a picture of the daily grind the fellas suffered out there. And that repetition is part of the suffering.

Cas’ delving into snippets of Antarctic history is welcome sideline – a mental gear shift for the reader – but like the ice fields, perhaps a little lean on detail. I would have liked to go further into what happened out there all those years ago, especially in exploring the mindspace and relationship dynamics of the Antarctic explorers of yesteryear – I wanted to know more about their drama to then compare it to where Cas and Jonesy were sitting, remembering that for all their modern day equipment and advanced logistics planning, they like those before them still had to deal with the same conditions, the same hurt, the same mental anguish. And like past adventurers, a lot of the time there was no way out – they could still die. In so many ways. 

Of course, there’s plenty more contained within Cas’ book, including his own humility in the face of the dealing with the fact that the pair may not to be ‘the first’ to complete the feat, with Gamme on a flier. In the quiet times, out there in the mêlée of pitch white, that fact plays with Cas’ mind.

Nevertheless, first or second, we know that the pair survive and, after 89 days, make it back to Union Glacier – the ice, the storms, the crevasses, the hunger, the pain, the breakdowns, the arguments… they live through it all.

And to get a little hyped, in the world of adventure, that’s pretty rock ‘n roll.

And worth reading about in Extreme South. Nurofen and iPod not required.